1945 on the island of Jersey, and in this isolated mansion house Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) lives with her two children, waiting for the war to end so they can be reunited with her husband, a soldier gone all these years after fighting on the Continent. Today she awakens with a scream, composes herself and goes downstairs to answer the door, as there are three people standing there. She surmises quickly that they must be the new servants, as the previous ones upped and left without so much as an explanation last week, but as they discover, Grace has strict rules to follow...
The Others was almost an anomaly in horror at the time it was released, as around this point the genre was going straight for the shocks, and anything more thoughtful was rejected as not being scary enough - or worse, not extreme enough. This left this quiet, traditional, deliberately creepy work looking like something from another era, which is an appearance it only courted, purposefully harking back to the literary ghost stories of the likes of M.R. James in its atmosphere if not its storyline. Actually, this and the tonally similar The Sixth Sense both relied on a big reveal at the end which even if it hadn't been spoiled for you, was not too hard to guess.
Director Alejandro Amenábar went all out to make this a classy-looking production, emphasising the mounting dread of the situation rather than going for gore or loud noises to make the audience jump. To some extent, this was artistically successful, as appearance-wise there were few chillers as icily handsome, something only enhanced by the feeling that something sinister was going on that at least one of the characters knew about, and would gradually be uncovered over the course of the story. As with the ending, it was fairly easy to divine the identity of them as well, leaving the film less satisfying on a plot level and more engaging as an exercise in atmosphere and style.
The three servants are housekeeper Bertha (Fionnula Flanagan, offering the best performance in the face of Kidman's relentless nerviness), gardener Mr Tuttle (Eric Sykes in a rare non-comedic role) and Lydia (Elaine Cassidy), the mute maid. It's worth pointing out that while there is that big twist at the end, there were still some secrets that remained after the end credits, one being the reason why Lydia never spoke, and the other, more pressing one being why Grace did what she did to land herself in this situation. In a way, offering up this atmosphere of mystery that lingers even after the movie is over is less like leaving loose strands of narrative and more contributing to the unease.
Grace's children Ann (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley) seem to be seeing ghosts, something that their mother refuses to contend with as she is of a practical bent, which in films like this means she's just one psychological push from going off the rails dramatically. Kidman makes for a brittle heroine, only sympathetic really because she comes across as so vulnerable as the actress widens her eyes and makes her voice shrill at each subsequent disturbance, whether it's hearing footsteps in the empty room above, or even envisaging her daughter as an old woman. Her religious nature we rightly consider to be partly borne of a guilt she doesn't quite grasp, along with the worries that her children, afflicted with a light-sensitive condition which means they cannot take direct sunlight, will be harmed, which turns out to be the plot's biggest irony. Really there's only one way this could go, which does render the whole experience somewhat straitjacketed, but it is a good film to look at. Music by Amenábar.